For One Bosnian Family, Mladic Brought Life of Torment and Pain

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Though the general will finally face a war crimes tribunal for his campaign of violence in the early 1990s, the Bekrics, like so many of his victims, still live with the scars of attempted genocide

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A Bosnian Muslim woman on her return to Srebrenica in 2002. Damir Sagolj/Reuters

It was a bright afternoon and the brilliant green brought by the warm spring weather crept across the valley. Sead Bekric, 14, was kicking a soccer ball with some friends in a schoolyard in Srebrenica, a small Bosnian town near the Serbian border. The first shell exploded at the far end of the field. Sead ran to an injured friend and pulled him into the school. As he returned to help other children who lay bleeding and wailing on the ground, he looked up and saw a black cloud of smoke in the air. The second shell hit, shrapnel flashing toward Sead. Parts of his nose were blown deep into his face. The metal shattered his right cheekbone, severely injuring his right eye and destroying his left. He was knocked unconscious.

When he awakened, he was covered with a blanket, unable to see. He touched his arms and legs, finding them unharmed. He felt around on top of the blanket, and touched something round and flesh-like, but cool. He felt hair, then a neck, and what seemed like ligaments and veins stringing spaghetti-like from the neck. It was a head without a body.

Refugees who were living in the school heard his screams and rushed to help. Rescuers had covered him with a blanket because they thought his wounds were so bad that there was no way that he would survive.

The refugees from the school were carrying the bleeding teenager toward the hospital when another shell hit. They dropped Sead in the street as they ran for cover. After the explosion cleared, the refugees picked him back up and kept going.

When his mother Mulija arrived at the hospital, which was overwhelmed with injured and dying children, she could not bring herself to look at her son, she later told me. His brown hair was matted with blood and his face looked as if it had been mauled by an animal. His father, Selman, a strong, tall man, picked up his thin son, cradled him in his arms, and began to wail.

The attack on the Srebrenica schoolyard in April 1993 was one of the first of many injuries to the Bekric family as General Ratko Mladic, the leader of the Bosnian Serb military, led his troops in the war against the Muslims and Croats of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In just three years, the Bekrics would be broken apart, some would be maimed, some killed, and all deeply scarred by the total warfare that Mladic's command waged in a relentless effort to seize land and resources owned by non-Serbs after Bosnia, in a national referendum, voted for independence from Yugoslavia.

Just one year earlier, in 1992, the Bekric family had been living on their farm in Voljevica on the fertile banks of the Drina River, which divides Bosnia from Serbia. But after the vote for independence, the family began to hear rumors that Serbian paramilitaries were coming to the village and snatching people. Two bodies were found decapitated in the street. One day Sead looked across the Drina and saw seven tanks on the Serbian side of the river aimed toward his farm and the rest of the village. Neighbors who had been friendly before now wore the uniforms of the Bosnian Serbs. Soldiers ordered the villagers to give up their guns. They issued their commands with megaphones and drove heavy trucks into the center of town to collect the weapons. In exchange, they promised to provide security for the villagers. It seemed like an effort to restore calm and order. The Muslims complied.

"A week later, the Serbs were shooting at us from every direction," Sead later recalled, in one of many conversations I had with him and members of his family over the years since first meeting him as he lay on a stretcher with his head bandaged in 1993. The Bekrics' story of suffering at the hands of the Serb army is especially poignant this week, as Mladic's arrival at The International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague promises to finally bring justice to the man who so tormented this family and thousands like it as the head of the Bosnian Serb military.

Miroslav Deronjic, who was head of the local ad hoc Bratunac Serbian defense force near Sead's village, testified before the Tribunal that this violence formed a definable pattern that General Mladic had applauded and encouraged. Paramilitaries terrorized a village, the Bosnian Serb military arrived with promises to restore order, but violent attacks continued. Muslim families either fled, were forced to leave, or were killed.

Sead and his family escaped into the hills, climbing high into the mountains and taking refuge in a series of small villages. But one night, returning to their farm to collect some food, Sead and his mother discovered that their house and the village had been burned to the ground.

"They had destroyed everything," he said.

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Susan E. Reed covered the Bosnian War from 1992 to 1995 for CBS News. She is the author of a forthcoming book, The Diversity Index.

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